Aeschylus loved his country dearly and devoted the best years of his life to her service. At the age of 35, while in the early stages of his career as a tragic poet, he dropped everything and rushed to Marathon, alongside all the other Athenians who were called to defend their homeland against the Persians. A few years later he took a local tradition regarding the burial site of the famous heroes who died before the walls of “ancient Thebes” and transformed it into the common heritage of all the Athenians with a tragedy called Eleusinians.
The Moirai (Fates), however, did not allow him to die in Eleusis. When Atropos decided to cut his life thread, the great poet was across the sea in Gela on the south coast of Sicily. According to tradition, Aeschylus met his end when an eagle hurled a turtle down at his bald head; all the poor bird wanted was to smash the shell and enjoy the delicious meat inside. It was just unfortunate that Aeschylus’ head resembled a rock.
The first portrait
The reptilian shell may have killed Aeschylus but it also opened the door to the Eleusinian dramatist’s afterlife. The comic poets of Athens repeatedly revived Aeschylus in their comedies (e.g. in Pherecrates’ Krapataloi and Aristophanes’ Frogs) while his sons and nephews won first prize in various dramatic contests with his works (Philocles, his nephew, defeated Sophocles the year the latter presented Oedipus Rex). About the year 330 BCE, the Athenian statesman Lycurgus proposed the erection of honorific bronze statues of the three great tragedians, to be set up by the entrance of the Theater of Dionysus in Athens.
The statue of Aeschylus is lost, but a portrait herm at the Museo Nazionale of Naples has been convincingly identified as a copy of the original bronze head. Aeschylus is portrayed as a serene Athenian citizen at his prime. There is nothing to remind the viewers that they stand before one of the greatest dramatists of all time, nor any element that differentiates this portrait from similar images of contemporary Athenians. Perhaps we will never know what Aeschylus really looked like, but it is obvious that he was not forgotten after his death and newer generations felt the need to honour his memory and contribution to Greek culture.
Politics hurt Aeschylus
We also do not know whether or how Eleusis honoured the great poet in antiquity. With the re-establishment of the community, however, in 1914, there were discussions regarding the erection of a monument dedicated to Aeschylus, which would be located at the entrance of the archaeological site. In 1925, General Pangalos approved of the idea but he fell from power before he had time to address the issue. A new attempt was made in 1935 at the initiative of Georgios Demestichas, who asked the Prefecture to authorize a year-long campaign to raise the necessary funds. The attempt ended prematurely with the rise to power of Ioannis Metaxas.
The poet’s hair
After the end of the Second World War, there was renewed interest in the statue of Aeschylus. The Eleusinian Georgios Methenitis donated a piece of land at the beginning of the pedestrianized section of Iera Odos in downtown Eleusis for the construction of the statue. The work was assigned to the Cretan sculptor Yiannis Parmakelis (who also created the statue of Vasilis Laskos at the seafront). Parmakelis’ Aeschylus differs in significant ways from the tragedian as envisioned by Lycurgus. He is a slender and sinewy man who wears a laurel wreath and stares with intensity at the theatrical mask that made him immortal. He is no longer the serene citizen but a veteran of the Persian Wars who appears to emerge from his garments to proclaim the divine laws. And he is not bald, so he is unlikely to receive another turtle on his head.
The last benefaction of Aeschylus
The ceremony of dedication was held on September 3, 1977. Konstantinos Tsatsos, President of the Hellenic Republic, presided over the event. Local authorities were concerned lest the cement dust emitted by the “Titan” factory and the orange smoke emanating from the stacks of the “Halyvourgiki” should destroy the ceremony. The factory owners also worried that the obvious signs of pollution would reflect poorly on them and their businesses, so they agreed to scale back their operations until after the ceremony in the hope that the air would clear up a bit. On the day of the dedication, though, there was a strong west wind that kicked up the dirt that “Titan” stored in a field near the stadium of the Panelefsiniakos football club. This soil was supposed to serve as raw material but ended up covering most of Eleusis (along with coal and cement dust). Fortunately, the rain that fell in the afternoon washed away the blanket of grime just in time for the ceremony of dedication.
At 7.15 pm, Tsatsos revealed the statue of Aeschylus. Mayor Michael Leventis offered the President of the Republic the Freedom of the City and a gold medal adorned with the portrait of the poet. There was a performance of the Suppliants near the Great Propylaea and the evening closed with a formal reception. But it was now obvious to anyone who had eyes to see and a nose to smell that Eleusis faced a deadly threat from the industries that strangled her. The events of the day of the ceremony of dedication can be considered Aeschylus’ last benefaction to his beloved homeland.